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In debt and afraid: dealing with debt collectors

Sarah Skidmore Sell, AP Personal Finance Writer

FILE - In this March 26, 2015, file photo, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Director Richard Cordray speaks during a panel discussion in Richmond, Va. A new CFPB report found that more than one in four consumers felt threatened when contacted by debt collectors. Cordray said the report casts a “troubling light” on the industry, and that the bureau is working to stop abuses. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)

It's a scary place to be — in debt and afraid.

A new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau report found that more than one in four consumers felt threatened when contacted by debt collectors. The first-ever national survey of consumer experiences with debt collectors found consumers often faced calls that came too often, at odd hours and contained warnings of jail time and other threats. Some were contacted for debts they didn't owe. And many said when they asked the collector to stop contacting them, the request was ignored.

CFPB Director Rich Cordray said the report casts a "troubling light" on the industry, and that the bureau is working to stop abuses. But what are your rights when facing off with a debt collector?

A few things to know:

YOU ARE NOT ALONE

The CFPB says debt collection is a multi-billion dollar industry affecting 70 million consumers. People are most often contacted about medical and credit card debt. And more consumers complain to the CFPB about debt collection than any other financial product or service.

The Federal Trade Commission, which enforces the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, also said debt collectors generate more complaints to its offices than any other industry. While many debt collectors are careful to comply with consumer protection laws, some engage in illegal practices.

YOU ARE PROTECTED

The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act provides protection for those being pursued for personal debts, such as money owed on a credit card account, an auto loan or a mortgage. It doesn't cover debts incurred to run a business.

YOU HAVE RIGHTS

Debt collectors can contact you by phone, letter, email or text message, as long as they follow the rules and disclose that they are debt collectors. It's against the law for a debt collector to pretend to be someone else to harass, threaten or deceive you.

They may not contact you at inconvenient times or places, such as early in the morning or late at night. And they may not contact you at work if they're told not to.

Debt collectors may not harass, oppress, or abuse you, according to the FTC. That includes threats of violence or using obscene language. Federal law also limits the number of calls a debt collector can place.

Collectors cannot lie to collect a debt, by falsely representing themselves or the amount you owe. And other than trying to obtain information about you, such as a telephone number or whereabouts, a debt collector generally is not permitted to discuss your debt with anyone other than you, your spouse, or your attorney.

YOU CAN TAKE ACTION

Report any problems you have with a debt collector to your state Attorney General's office, the Federal Trade Commission and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Many states have their own debt collection laws that vary from federal law, so contact your attorney general's office for help.